Tea, Cheerios and marshmallows are three things you wouldn't normally associate with wine. But Megan Krigbaum, senior wine editor at Food & Wine and author of the article "Wine-Tasting Workout: Train Yourself to be a Better Wine Taster," shows you how these items can be used to taste for tannin, sweetness and oak in wine.

Melissa Clark: I love drinking wine, but I really want to be better at tasting wine. How can you help me?

Megan Krigbaum (Harlan Turkell)
Megan Krigbaum (Harlan Turkell)

Megan Krigbaum: We did this story at Food & Wine last October. I went to a bunch of experts to figure out what are the main components that you need to know about to taste wine. This is something that takes you into the food world rather than directly into the wine world, which is a little bit easier to understand. I went to Josh Wesson, who's this amazing wine knowledge person. He's just a tremendous brain -- he does a lot of speaking and education.

Everyone thinks there's a right or wrong when it comes to tasting wine, but really, the truth is there are just a handful of components that you can know about to be a better wine taster. I'm going to show you how to taste for tannin, sweetness and oak. The first one that is really big and hard to understand is tannin.

MC: You hear that associated with wine all the time, but then where else do we find tannin? Where else does it exist in the world?

MK: You can find tannin in walnuts; it's that little bitter thing. But what Josh told me about is the tannin that you find in black tea. Just some really simple packets of Lipton tea can teach you a lot about tannin.

I've made two cups of tea for you: One was steeped for 2 minutes and one was steeped for 4 minutes. Tannin really is a textural component when it comes to wine.

MC: The second one -- there's a bitterness, there's almost a raspiness on my tongue.

MK: It should feel almost dry in this way, like your palate is really cleaned off, and you get that bitterness in the back of your throat.

MC: The 2-minute cup is perfect as it is. The 4-minute cup? I want a little milk. I want to mitigate that.

MK: Exactly. You could probably go a little even more extreme with this and do an 8-minute cup as well. Then you would really get that tannin in your face, but it's not very pleasant.

MC: Now that I've tasted those, you've got two wines for me to taste?

MK: The first wine that I'm going to pour for you is this Beaujolais from southern Burgundy. It's from an amazing producer named Marcel Lapierre; he actually died a couple years ago, but his legacy carries on. He makes this gorgeous wine from the gamay grape. This would be the one that's lower in tannin.

MC: That's delicious.

MK: The next one is a Bordeaux. It's mostly merlot and you should taste that dryness as a similarity to the black teas.

MC: That's delicious, too. But yes, that one dries my tongue out immediately. It's funny, with the wine I don't mind my tongue being dried out, but with the tea it's disconcerting. It's interesting maybe because I expect it.

What in wine accounts for the tannins?

MK: It's part of the grape. You can get tannins either from the skins or from the seeds of the grapes. When they press the grapes, if they press them really hard, you'll get a lot of tannin extracted from the seeds. If they press them lightly, you won't get so much. The thicker the skin, the more tannin you'll have.

MC: So a wine like the Beaujolais -- it's probably quickly pressed, they don't have a lot of skin contact and it's a brighter, lighter wine. Then with the Bordeaux, we're getting thicker types of grapes.

MK: Longer time on the skins, more seed influence.

MC: Is there an ideal amount of tannin that you're looking for in a wine?

MK: I think it depends on what you're going to drink it with. Ideally, you would drink this Bordeaux with something either rich or meaty -- something really substantial. You want the fat to pair up with tannin.

With something lighter like Beaujolais, you could almost drink it on its own, but it also goes well with lighter foods such as chicken or vegetables. The Beaujolais is like the red wine for seafood. Not much can go in the red world with seafood.

MC: What's the next component?

MK: The next component is sweetness. Here is a glass of essentially lemon juice. We took about a cup of water and we squeezed the juice of half of a lemon into it. It's very concentrated.

MC: Wait, that doesn't sound very sweet to me.

MK: It's not sweet yet; it's super tart. We have some sugar. What I'd like you to do is put a little sugar in, stir it and then taste that.

MC: I'm going to really add a lot of sugar here, because that is quite tart. It's lemonade without the sugar, which as my daughter will tell you, "Mommy, put more sugar in there."

MK: That's probably pretty balanced at that point. You still have the tartness of it, which is really nice, but you also have the sweetness. We're in the realm of talking about rieslings, which can be either really sweet, not sweet at all, in the dry realm, or somewhere in the middle.

MC: What's the right balance between acidity and sweetness? What are you really looking for when you try to choose a good white wine?

MK: I think you might want something that's very dry, very tart on a really hot summer day. When you're sitting outside, hanging out with your friends, having a picnic, you might want something super refreshing like that. But then you might want something with a little bit of sugar to it if you're having scallops on the grill or something a little richer -- it's nice to have a little bit of fruit -- even something spicy like Thai food that has some good heat to it. If you went a little further, that would be a pretty sweet example. You can still do that with some spicy food, but you also could do that with more dessert items.

MC: I was always told with dessert wine, that dessert should be as sweet as the wine -- they should be equal.

MK: I think really you want the wine to be sweeter. I think that's the ideal.

The next one I want to show you is another lesson from Josh Wesson. I had never heard this before. This is about tasting oak in wines. We all know that a lot of wines end up in a barrel at some point. Sometimes the barrel has a lot of influence because it's new and freshly toasted, and sometimes it has minimal influence because it's old.

Take some Cheerios in your hand and crush them. Now give them a big smell. It's oaty, but it's toasty and it kind of gives you the idea of what an oaked chardonnay would taste like or a white wine that has oak influence.

MC: It smells a little bit ever so slightly smoky, but not a lot.

MK: It also has that vanilla flavor to it.

MC: The vanilla comes from the oak as well.

MK: Exactly. Another funny little experiment that Josh taught me is with some toasted marshmallows. We toasted these marshmallows just over a flame on the stove. If you give those a smell, this will give you a sense of what oak does to red wine. It gives this sweet, smoky, toastiness. I was totally blown away by that one. I had never heard that before.

MC: Wow, toasted marshmallows. This really does smell like some cabernets I've had in the past. Very, very oaky and it smells great. 

Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.